Time To Get Organized

I’ve dedicated this semester to working on my thesis, which I intend to be a collection of poems and short stories about the experience of being adopted. I don’t have any classes to attend this fall. This is good in that I won’t be distracted by homework assignments, and I’ll be able to put my kids to bed every night. However, it’s also challenging, because I have to impose some kind of structure on myself to get the work done.

To that end, this past week I decided to create an Excel spreadsheet to log all of the poems I have written over the past several years. I documented the status of each poem and also categorized the poems by the major themes I tend to write about. I also linked each poem in my spreadsheet to it’s folder on my hard drive so I can easily get to my drafts directly from my log.

Simplified sample of my spreadsheet (click to see larger).

I had a few different goals in mind for doing this. I’d been having trouble keeping track of which poems I’d finished and which I’d left in the draft stage, as well as which I’d published, submitted to journals, etc. So I wanted an easy way to produce a list I could work from of poems that are either finished or in process. To help with submissions, I also wanted a way to easily get a list of poems with a certain theme or poems written in a particular style. Creating columns on my spreadsheet for each of these criteria and utilizing Excel’s filter feature seems to be just what I needed.

Now that I’m able to quickly see all of my poems in one place, I’ve discovered that I’ve left a hefty number of them unfinished. The last academic year pulled me in so many different directions, I’d start a piece then abandon it temporarily to finish other things I needed to get done. Then when I’d sit down to work on poems, I’d forget which ones I needed to go back to. In the few days I’ve been working from the spreadsheet, I’ve already completed some poems that had been waiting for attention for quite a while–and that feels great!

I also see now how I can group my poems in different ways for submission to journals, because I’m able to quickly isolate pieces that deal with similar subject matter, or play with form in a similar way, etc. I think this is going to help me get my poems out there for others to read on more of a regular basis.

Today I created a similar spreadsheet to log my short stories. If I stay organized, I think I have a good shot of keeping to the schedule I proposed for completing my thesis, assuming, of course, that the writing itself goes well. I had a little trouble getting back into fiction mode this morning. But, that’s another post.

Book a Week: The Best American Short Stories of the Century

This week I’d like to talk about one story in a daunting book I’m in the process of working through, The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison. I intend to read all 795 pages of stories and biographical notes, which obviously will take quite a long time. Today I’m up to page 158.

The story I read this morning was called “My Dead Brother Comes to America,” a fascinating title. It was originally published in The Windsor Quarterly in 1934, and was written by Alexander Godin. The piece tells the tale of a mother and her three children arriving in New York on a steamship, en route to reunite with their husband/father who had left the Ukraine for America eight years earlier. Through the eyes of the thirteen-year-old narrator, I was able to clearly see the emigrants aboard the ship, the nastiness of their accomodations, the indifference of the officials who examined them upon their arrival at Ellis Island. I was able to feel the despair that had brought them across the ocean, the emptiness of a young boy lost in a strange place and in a family that had been “broken into many shards.”

This is a truer tale than I have read in any history book.

What we know of Alexander Godin is that he was born in the Ukraine in 1909 and arrived in New York in 1922. We know he worked as a bottler in a chemical plant and that he wrote a novel called On the Threshold. We know nothing more, not even the year of his death (assuming he has passed), according to the biographical notes. Another source I found via Google claims “Alexander Godin” was a psyeudonym of a writer named Joseph Katz. In any case, we seem to have lost track of Godin himself though his story has survived for 78 years to be read by me, and will likely survive for many years to come due to its inclusion in this volume.

I wonder what Alexander Godin would think of this. I wonder if, when he set his story down on paper, he considered how he could relate the tale in a way that would be universal, that would carry meaning for a wide audience, that would ensure its longevity. I wonder if he considered how to turn the story of this one boy’s family turmoil into a social commentary about the larger issue of mass emigration to America. I wonder if he worried about whether his effort would be deemed true literature.

Or, did he simply aim to tell his story in the best way he could. I wonder…

Book a Week: A Ghost at Heart’s Edge, edited by Susan Ito and Tina Cervin

If you’ve been following these weekly posts, you may have noticed that I’m not very concerned with selecting books that are hot right now. I’m playing catch up on my reading list, and I’m also reading in preparation to write my master’s thesis.

This week’s book falls into that second category. My thesis will be a collection of poems and short stories about the experience of growing up adopted. When I searched for material to read, I was very excited to find A Ghost at Heart’s Edge: Stories and Poems of Adoption, which was published in 1999. I was curious to see if the shifts from story to poem and back to story would work.

Ghost covers more adoption territory than I plan to, as it includes pieces on waiting to adopt, raising an adopted child, relinquishing a child for adoption, and reunion with birth family members. Of course, the stories and poems here were also written by many different authors (including Joni Mitchell, Dan Chaon, and Jackie Kay) so each has a unique voice and perspective.

I was pleased to find that the mixture of genres not only didn’t bother me as a reader, but that the poems actually enhanced the stories and vice-versa. I feel more confident about my own collection now.

Curiously, I responded most to the male perspectives in this collection and to those birth mothers who did not regret relinquishing their babies. I think my reaction probably had to do with these being voices I was less familiar with before reading the book, perspectives that felt foreign to me. I related most to the adoptees who pointed out traits they had that just didn’t mesh with their adoptive families. But it was good to read all the angles of adoption.

This is a well-rounded collection that I think would benefit anyone in the adoption triad. But I was left wondering, what would make someone outside of the triad pick up this book? One of my goals for my own collection is for it to reach a wide range of readers, including those with a link to adoption and those who may have never thought about adoption at all. I think it’s important to make those outside of the adoption circle aware of all the issues in adoption if we’re ever going to see true adoption reform. We’ve come a long way in opening adoptions and in putting the focus on kids who really need to be adopted, like those in foster care who have no hope of ever being reunited with their families. But we still have a long way to go. Young mothers are still being pressured to relinquish their babies, and adult adoptees are still being denied access to their own family history. I think the more adoption literature we can publish and put in front of the general public, the greater chance we have of making adoption a positive experience for everyone involved.